## The Plays That Got Them Here

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MIAMI — The most important play in a game isn’t always the one you remember most. Sometimes, it’s subtle and doesn’t even make the highlight reel. Sometimes, something as simple as a change in possession can be more important than a shot that does or doesn’t go in.

The NBA has a way to use analytics to figure out just which plays had the biggest impact on a close game. It’s a “leverage” model that was developed to evaluate and instruct referees by pointing out which calls or no-calls had the biggest impact on a game’s result.

Here’s the idea: At every point of a game, each team has a certain probability of winning. Putting the quality of each team to the side, when the game tips off, the home team has a 60 percent probability of winning and the road team has a 40 percent probability of winning. After the first basket, those numbers haven’t changed much. But if the home team is up 10 with the ball and five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, their win probability (WP) is obviously a lot greater than 60 percent.

So, by calculating win probability both before and after a play occurs, it can be determined just how important that play was. Score, possession and location are the factors. And obviously, plays in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter (or overtime) in a close game are more important than any others.

Using the league’s data model, we’ve determined the 10 most important plays made by the Miami Heat or San Antonio Spurs on their way to The Finals.

10. +18.7 percent – Conference semis, Game 5 – Heat get multiple stops on the Bulls’ final possession.
With 26 seconds left, Miami up by three (94-91) and Chicago in possession, Miami had an 81.3 percent WP. After the inbounds, Nate Robinson advanced the ball and attempted a 3-pointer with 18 seconds on the clock that was contested by Norris Cole. Just before the shot, Miami had a slightly better chance of winning (83.6 percent) than at the start of the possession because eight seconds had run off the clock.

Had Robinson’s shot gone in, Miami’s WP would have dropped to 60.3 percent (about -20 percent) with the tie, possession and about 18 seconds left. Instead, the shot missed and the Bulls got the rebound. With just three seconds left, they set up Jimmy Butler for another 3-point attempt to tie.

At that point, Miami’s WP was up to 95.5 percent, but had Butler’s shot gone in as time expired, sending the game to overtime, Miami’s WP would have been cut from 81.3 percent at the start of the possession to about 58.3 percent at the start of OT (-30%). Instead, the shot missed the series was over.

9. +18.9 percent – Conference semis, Game 1 – Boris Diaw hits a three with 2:27 left in the first overtime
With 2:49 left in the first OT, Diaw rebounds a Draymond Green shot that could have given the Warriors a five-point lead. With possession and down three (111-108), the Spurs WP was 28.1 percent. After they advance the ball and swing it around, Manu Ginobili drives into the paint, draws Diaw’s defender, and hits him in the corner for an open three. Diaw drains it, increasing the Spurs’ WP to 46.9 percent. They went on to win in double-OT.

8. +19.0 percent – Conference semis, Game 1 – Dwyane Wade’s steal sets up LeBron James’ three-point play.
With 7:18 left in the fourth quarter, Miami leading Chicago 70-69. and the Bulls in possession, the Heat had a WP of 57.4 percent. At 7:07, Wade steals a pass from Marco Belinelli, increasing Miami’s WP to 64.8%. That’s a jump of +7.3 percent just for the change of possession. But Wade then gets the ball to James, who is grabbed around the shoulders by Butler and still manages to hit a shot with his left hand at 7:04. He makes the free throw, increasing Miami’s WP to 76.5 percent. But the Bulls would come back to win the game, 93-86.

7. +20.9 percent – Conference finals, Game 1 – Chris Bosh gets an and-one tip-in
With 1:20 to go in overtime, Miami is down 99-96 when James rebounds a Lance Stephenson miss. At that point, their WP is 24.5 percent. Bosh misses a three, but James gets the offensive board and sets up Shane Battier for another three. At that point, the Heat’s WP is down to 23.3 percent.

Battier misses, but Bosh rises over Roy Hibbert, gets fouled by Paul George, and tips in the miss. The tip-in with no foul would have increased Miami’s WP 32.8 percent, but when Bosh ties the game with the free throw, Miami’s WP increased to 45.4 percent, for a total possession increase of 20.9%. The Heat went on to win with a play that’s further down this list.

6. +21.3 percent – Conference finals, Game 1 – Cole steals inbounds pass
This was a judgement call as to whether there was a change of possession, because Cole never really had control of the ball, but the scorer tallied it as two successive turnovers.

With the Pacers down three and 10.8 seconds left in OT, George Hill drops the inbounds pass and Cole gets his hands on it. There’s a scramble for the ball at the mid-court line and Hill gets the ball back. He gets it to George, who is fouled by Wade on a 3-point attempt.

Before the play, the Heat’s WP was 71.8 percent, and the first change of possession increased it to 93.1 percent.

5. +22.5 percent – Conference semis, Game 1 – Diaw steal leads to Danny Green lay-up
With the score tied at 111 and 2:08 left in overtime, the Spurs’ WP was 46.6 percent, because the Warriors have possession. But Diaw steals a Draymond Green pass in the lane and gets the ball to Tony Parker, who finds Danny Green for a lay-up with 2:02 left. The steal increased the Spurs’ WP to 59.3 percent and the basket increased it to 69.1 percent.

So Diaw made two huge plays in the Spurs’ Game 1 win over the Warriors. But there were two bigger…

4. +22.6 percent – Conference semis, Game 1 – Danny Green’s three ties the game in regulation

Down three with 29 seconds left, the Spurs’ WP was 22.4 percent. But they run a great misdirection play to get Green an open three from the right wing. He makes it with 20.8 seconds left, increasing their WP to 45.0 percent.

3. +23.6 percent – Conference semis, Game 4 – James’ steal leads to Wade’s three-point play
This one is interesting, because there were still six minutes left in the fourth, but it was essentially a four-point swing, because the Pacers scored about a point per possession in the series.

With the Pacers about to inbound the ball with exactly 6:00 on the clock, the score was tied at 83 and the Heat’s WP was just 41.9 percent (because they were on the road and didn’t have possession). But James steals George’s awful inbounds pass and gets the ball to Wade, who gets fouled by David West and goal-tended by George.

The steal itself increased Miami’s WP to 50.5 percent and the three-point put it at 65.5 percent. But the Pacers would recover and win the game.

2. +61.3 percent – Conference semis, Game 1 – Ginobili’s three wins it in double-OT

With the Spurs down one with 3.4 seconds left, their WP was 35.7 percent. Ginobili’s three left 1.2 seconds on the clock, but increased their WP to 97.0 percent.

1. +77.6 percent – Conference finals, Game 1 – James’ game-winner

From 22.4 percent to 100 percent.

## Heat May Thank Bulls Later For This One

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MIAMI – However far the Miami Heat go in defending their championship and chasing down another one, they will take a piece of the Chicago Bulls with them.

Probably some blood spatter too.

If the Heat players don’t look back at some point in the next month and appreciate, reflect and build upon what it was they got from that undermanned Chicago team, they won’t just be ingrates. They’ll be ingrates gone fishin’.

A niggling bad habit of the Heat at various times this season showed itself again in all its unnerving glory in the middle two quarters of Game 5 Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.

What started out as a cool and stylish South Beach club party got spoiled by a bunch of Chicago guys hogging the bar stools and throwing peanut shells on the floor. The Bulls outscored Miami 56-39 in those middle 24 minutes and … wait, that doesn’t quite capture what went on.

Try this instead: After digging themselves a 22-4 hole midway through the first quarter, the Bulls beat the Heat the rest of the night 87-72. Left for dead early, they sat up as surely as Michael Myers, spooking Miami with thoughts of what might have been.

“You give a team like this life, anything can happen,” said forward Chris Bosh. “It’s kind of like watching a horror movie or something, and it happens in slow-motion. You go to Chicago [for a Game 6], their crowd is waking back up again, they’re excited again and now you’re in a dogfight. They come back and win that game, now anything can happen in a Game 7.”

Anything nearly happened in Game 5.

Let’s face it, on talent and depth, the Bulls who ended this season would have been, over 82 games, a lottery team. No Derrick Rose, who went wire-to-wire in his knee surgery rehab, but no Luol Deng or Kirk Hinrich over the final two weeks, either. Chicago still had All-Star center Joakim Noah and forward Carlos Boozer, but the remaining collection of role players and reserves were asked to do a little too much.

And still it worked. Oh, not overall. But often enough through Game 1, for stretches in Game 3 and over the final 41 minutes of Game 5 to grab the Heat’s attention. (more…)

## Bulls’ Backs Against Wall They Built

MIAMI – Based on who they have, who they don’t and what their depleted roster might have left in a postseason that has lasted longer than they probably had a right to expect, the Chicago Bulls appear to have hit a wall.

Naturally, they’ll do what they have done before in such circumstances. They will peel themselves off it like Wile E. Coyote after the painted-tunnel trick, do an about-face and face the Miami Heat in Game 5 of their conference semifinals series (7 p.m ET, TNT). With their backs against that proverbial wall.

“All we’re thinking about is Game 5, first quarter. That’s it,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said at his team’s morning shootaround. “You’ve got to go step by step. To me, it’s be ready for the first quarter. We understand what needs to be done. That’s all we’re focused in on. Not any of the what-if’s or any of that.”

Few teams, frankly, have more what-if’s about them than the Bulls, who again will face the NBA defending champions without forward Luol Deng, without guard Kirk Hinrich and, of course, without 2011 MVP Derrick Rose. Deng – two weeks after suffering some severe flu symptoms as well as complications from a diagnostic spinal tap – did not even travel with the club for this one. Hinrich’s calf bruise, suffered in Game 4 of the first round, still prevents him from running or playing.

As for Rose, well, if he invests the way he rehabs from knee surgery, his risk aversion would have his millions all sitting in a checking account. That’s how conservative he’s been since having his torn left ACL repaired a year ago this week.

The Bulls still standing shoulder on. They are 2-5 in franchise playoff history in Game 5 when facing elimination, temporarily fending off Detroit in 2007 and Philadelphia in 2012. This Miami team, meanwhile, is 7-1 in the Big 3 era when it has a chance to close out the opposition.

“Whatever your circumstances are, you have to make the best of those circumstances,” Thibodeau said. “This team has dealt with adversity all year. We’ve had the unique ability to bounce back. That’s what I’m expecting us to do tonight.

“Emotion’s not going to win the game. Playing well, doing your job, getting it done, that’s what’s going to win the game.”

Said guard Nate Robinson: “Last game, we didn’t make shots. First game we played here, we played hard, we made shots. That’s what it’s about, getting stops and getting buckets.”

Robinson, the instant-offense backup thrust in Hinrich’s absence into Rose’s role, scored 27 points in Game 1, the Bulls’ surprise road victory of the series. Since then, with the full weight of Miami’s defense bearing down on him, he has shot 8-for-35, including 0-for-12 Monday.

Naturally, Robinson would like to see the Bulls get Carlos Boozer and Marco Belinelli going early to shift some of the Heat’s defensive focus to them. Maybe that could open some seams for him, for Jimmy Butler and for Joakim Noah.

Because as it is, that wall the Bulls have their backs against has been built in part by them, brick by brick. They’re shooting 37.6 percent in the series. Chicago has taken 12 more shots than the Heat (298-286) yet has 29 fewer field goals (112-141).

The free-throw situation is equally illuminating. For all the grumbling and physical play, the Bulls are 81-for-107 from the line and the Heat are 81-for-105.

The biggest question for Miami as Game 5 approached was guard Dwyane Wade‘s availability. Coach Erik Spoelstra said Wade, hobbled by a bruised right knee, did fine in shootaround but that his participation would be a game-time decision.

Miami did sit Wade from the series finale against Milwaukee in the first round, giving him what wound up as eight days of rest before this series began. If he sits out Game 5 Wednesday and Miami were to win, Wade would have at least until Monday – a full week after Game 4 – and possibly until Wednesday before the East finals begin.

## Blogtable: Who Can Beat The Heat?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.

Week 29: What to make of OKC? | Who can beat the Heat? | The Bulls’ future

### Let’s assume that the Heat are the best team in the league. Pick another team, either conference: Who’s second-best?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Tempted here to say Indiana, because a Pacers-Heat series for the Eastern Conference title could be dynamite, especially if Dwyane Wade’s sore right knee brings Miami back to the pack a little. And this is with Indiana spotting them Danny Granger. Paul George’s ascendancy, Roy Hibbert’s confidence and height, the X factor of Lance StephensonThing is, my head says that San Antonio is the more complete and mature team at this point, edging ahead of the Pacers in the battle for No. 2. Now that both Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra are done with their personnel gamesmanship (no one would be skipping road games in a Spurs-Heat Finals), I think San Antonio would command the most respect from Miami’s stars. (And yes, I acknowledge Memphis might be better right now than either the Pacers or the Spurs.)

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: It might be hard to believe considering they’re in a struggle with the Warriors, but I’m going with the Spurs. They’re experienced, they’re deep, they’re balanced and I believe that if they’re still healthy in June, they could give the Heat the best run in The Finals.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: I don’t have to assume that Miami is the best team. They just are. A healthy Oklahoma City is second-best. But since they’re not healthy, San Antonio is next. Tim  Duncan is in remarkable shape and Tony Parker, when he’s healthy, and he seems to be getting better and better, is an MVP-type player. The supporting cast is excellent, they are disciplined, proficient and can beat you in a number of ways.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: At the moment? The Grizzlies. I would not have made the case at the start of the playoffs, but the answer of the moment is that not only is Memphis playing at a high level, but it has the best chance to give Miami a hard shove. The Grizz strength (inside game) against the Heat weakness (the same), plus Tony Allen as the first line of defense against LeBron James, would be an interesting watch.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Oh, man. That’s a tough call. The Pacers’ defense is the best in the league. The Grizzlies are also great on that end and seem to be getting better offensively every week. But I’m going to stick with the Spurs, who were a great team on both ends of the floor in the regular season. They’ve obviously struggled to slow down Stephen Curry at times in the semifinals, but they’ve survived the toughest test that any of the aforementioned teams have faced in this round, and they’re still the most complete team outside of Miami.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Let’s wade into the deep end of the pool and do that with the Heat. The second-best team, just as I predicted on The Hang Time Podcast weeks ago, is the Memphis Grizzlies. The ability to play at an elite level inside and out and on both ends of the floor sets this Grizzlies team apart from the pack. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph bring the pain every night. And Mike Conley, Tony Allen and the rest of an underrated crew on the perimeter have me skipping a few steps (it’s a foolish thing to do, I know, but  cannot help it) and thinking about the matchups in a Heat-Grizzlies Finals scrap. I’d love to see how LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh try to deal with the Grizzlies’ frontline.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com: In the East, Indiana, and in the West, Memphis. Both teams have several similarities: Size and strength in the post (Hibbert/West and Gasol/Randolph); underrated point guards who can knock down jumpers or get to the rim (Hill and Conley); elite wing defenders (George and Allen). They also both could use an outside shooter and a little more depth, although I don’t think the lack of a bench really works against either team in the playoffs when the rotations are shortened.

Hanson Guan, NBA.com/china: The Grizzlies, definitely. Some see parallels between the Grizzlies and that 2004 Pistons team (and the common link of Tayshaun Prince helps). They are a chain without a weak link, their tactics are working well and the atmosphere in the locker room is perfect. As opposed to those Pistons, the Grizzlies rely on post players, but Conley has been showing a big heart as the playoffs have unfolded. If Memphis elbows its way to The Finals, the Grizz would be a great threat to Heat. They may even emerge the dark horse to replicate the unlikely feat of the Pistons, who, in 2004, came out on top at the expense of the Lakers. [Hanson Guan is an editor for NBA China (china.nba.com)]

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com/greece: No room for surprises in this one. The Pacers are playing like the best team right now, but is this truly what the question is all about? The Heat are the bullies of the NBA — the team with the MVP, the defending champions, the squad that everyone is afraid of. But if opponents’ fear is the one way to measure how good a team is, the other one is respect. And the prize for that one goes, without saying, to the San Antonio Spurs, the old dogs that tend to learn new tricks every now and then. They are at the edge of eliminating the “young guns” of the West and are ready to put all that experience-armor on for The Finals. No, I cannot avoid quoting the most important words that came out of a basketball coach in the last 20 years. As Rudy Tomjanovich once said: “Don’t EVER underestimate the heart of a champion.” And the Big-Three have won three in the post-David Robinson era. [Stefanos Triantafyllos is the editor of NBA Greece. (nba.com/greece)]

Akshay Manwani, NBA.com/india: It’s between the Spurs, the Pacers and Memphis — teams that are ahead in their series at this stage. A look at NBA.com’s advanced stats for teams in the postseason also puts these three teams among the top five in the Net Rating category, with Miami at No. 1. However, while San Antonio comes in at No. 2 here, with a net rating of 10.3, owing to a couple of blowout games against the Lakers, I’ll go with Memphis as the next best team in the league. They have the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the year in Gasol, two players among the top 10 in the postseason scoring category and Gasol and Z-Bo and get to the free throw line more than any other team. Memphis is also a younger and a more physical team than the Spurs and since they don’t have to play the Heat in the next round (unlike Indiana), they are most likely to represent the West in The Finals. [Akshay Manwani is a blogger for NBA India (nba.com/india)]

## Blogtable: The Bulls Next Season

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.

Week 29: What to make of OKC? | Who can beat the Heat? | The Bulls’ future

### The Bulls finally look cooked, so complete this thought: If the Bulls get Derrick Rose back next year …

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: … we’ll be talking about other guys’ injuries. Or Rose’s injuries other than his left anterior cruciate ligament. This wasn’t a case of one-and-done in Chicago this season – the Bulls have struggled with hurt and missing players for a while now. Rose only played 39 games in the post-lockout schedule of 2011-12. Luol Deng has missed all or parts of three playoff runs. Kirk Hinrich is a walking Ace bandage and Joakim Noah seemingly isn’t built for 82 games-at-35-minutes per. Coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t sweat the 2 1/2 hours he uses his guys on game nights because he expects them to be professional about body maintenance the other 21 1/2 hours. But something has to give, either in Thibodeau’s minutes distribution, in the trainer’s room or in Chicago’s new policy for 2013-14 of team-sponsored three-week sabbaticals for each starter, staggered from January through March.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Assuming Rose can dunk off his left foot by October, the Bulls are right back as a — maybe “the” — prime challenger to Miami in the East. Thibs will see to that.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: They will be an Eastern Conference contender. How can they not be? No way can they suffer a season like this again, not just with Rose out, but with the myriad of injuries and craziness (spinal tap gone wrong?). Jimmy Butler is only going to get better and Rose should — I say, should — be back for training camp primed for a huge seasons.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: … they will open as the second-best team in the East. That’s with the assumption that he comes back healthy. It is impossible to make predictions without knowing the summer moves, and not just for Chicago, but there is still a lot to like about the Bulls moving forward. As much as Rose has come off like a drama queen as the saga dragged on, I don’t question his ability to make a major impact and make the Bulls better.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: If? Ugh. They will a top-three team in the East. But they’re not necessarily better than Indiana if they can’t add some more depth. Thibs is going to be Thibs and ride his guys, but they need competent back-ups at the three and five spots to ease some of the burden on Luol Deng and Joakim Noah and keep those guys fresh throughout the season.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: If? If they get him back next year? Are you trying to start a riot in Chicago? The Bulls are definitely going to have the services of Derrick Rose next season and that will ensure their status as one of the top four teams in the East for the 2013-14 season, provided he and a few of his friends can stay healthy for the majority of the season. Rose knows that he owes Bulls fans a season they won’t forget, especially after the way things were handled this season. The epic grind they showed throughout this season and into the playoffs should be proof to Rose and his camp that there is plenty of talent around him to help win at the highest level. The assembly of said talent doesn’t guarantee anything, as we’ve seen in so many other cases (Los Angeles Lakers this season). But it does mean you have a chance to compete at the highest level. And that’s where these Bulls belong with a healthy Rose in the lineup.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com: … they become the second-best team in the East. In some ways losing Rose for this season could end up being a net-gain, as the other Bulls have all had chances to carry bigger loads and, in turn, mature and improve in ways that probably would have taken longer had Rose been dominating the ball and shouldering his usual load.

Davide Chinellato, NBA.com/italy: They will have a shot at the Heat. But they need to reshape their roster. I’d probably start using the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer, using the cap relief to bring another big man to Chi-town. Then I’d re-sign Marco Belinelli (he’s had a real good year) because he would form a terrific backcourt with Rose. And I’d see if there’s anything we can find that’d say why they had so many injuries — what caused them to break down physically — in the most important time of the year. [Davide Chinellato is the editor of  NBA Italia (nba.com/italy)]

Eduardo Schell, NBA.com/spain: Who knows what the future holds for the Bulls. Maybe Rose playing again ends up as a setback for Krypto-Nate, Jimmy Butler (or others), who both have stepped up and performed well beyond expectations. With D-Rose, the Bulls’ playing style might change and there can be a big ‘ego’ problem. Again, who knows. Teammates, though they’ve claimed to understand, might even harbor some resentment for how Rose handled this postseason. There have been lots of talks during the season regarding Boozer and Deng so lets see how they come into play. Lets put it this way: adding pieces doesn’t always end up being a great result. But there’s an ancient Chinese saying: the most beautiful flowers blossom during the toughest times. [Eduardo Schell is the editor of NBA España (nba.com/spain)]

Selçuk Aytekin, NBA.com/turkey: Derrick Rose is one of the best basketball players on the planet. If a healthy D-Rose came to the Chicago Bulls or virtually any other team in NBA, that team would become a contender. I have questions about his current physical health, so hopefully he is 100 percent ready to play, as his doctor’s said. But, yes, if he’s back to full strength, the Bulls will be talking about the Larry O’Brien Trophy. [Selçuk Aytekin is the editor of NBA Turkiye (nba.com/turkey)]

## Aching Knee Puts Limp In Wade’s Playoff Run

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MIAMI – Never let ’em see you wince.

That has been Dwyane Wade‘s mostly successful approach since suffering a deep bone bruise to his right knee against Orlando in early March. Heck, that has been Wade’s approach more or less since he reached the NBA and got busy with that fall-down-578-times, get-up-579 business.

The Miami Heat star shooting guard has had good days and bad days since initially injuring the knee. He has aggravated it, pampered it, fought it, ignored it and, through Miami’s first eight games this postseason, made peace with it. It’s not getting noticeably better, it’s not forcing him to miss significant time in the Heat’s quest to repeat as NBA champions. Stalemate.

Until the second quarter of Game 4 against the Chicago Bulls Monday night at United Center, anyway. When Bulls defender Jimmy Butler banged knees with Wade, Miami’s guy lost in the collision. The pain showed on Wade’s face and he quickly subbed out, getting some treatment and a fresh taping on the Heat bench. He returned and scored six points in the third quarter – but they were his only points of the night and Wade played just 2:39 in the fourth, compared to LeBron James‘ nine minutes and Chris Bosh‘s six down the stretch of the blowout victory.

After Wade’s 10-point performance on 5-of-7 shooting in Game 3, he and coach Erik Spoelstra reminded reporters of Wade’s adjustment and growing deference to James over the past three years. It wasn’t exactly a cover story but it was a diversion, a tale of teamwork and chemistry fit for a two-day break between games.

But after Wade’s 3-of-10 effort in Game 4, a tale of noble motives gives way to the urgency of  his injury, his prognosis and timeline for healing and his availability not just for what’s left of this series – the Heat lead the Eastern Conference semifinals, 3-1, with Game 5 Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena – but what’s left of Miami’s title defense.

Spoelstra got defensive on behalf of his star and friend when talking with reporters, as chronicled by the Sun Sentinel’s Shandel Richardson:

“He’s helping us win right now,” Spoelstra said Tuesday. “OK. One of these days boxscores will have your plus-minus impact and maybe eventually people will start to look at a boxscore differently and eventually a new generation of fans, the media, staff will see that’s the most important one and he’s having that impact.”

The Heat have lost just once in the playoffs despite Wade averaging only 12.3 points, nearly nine below his season average. After Monday’s six-point effort against the Bulls, he is averaging 11.3 points in the series.

Wade, 31, ranks fourth in scoring for Miami this postseason and isn’t even the top scoring Marquette product in the series (Butler, 23, is averaging 12.8 for Chicago). But that’s the sort of comparative stuff that rankles Spoelstra.

“I understand the interest level in it, but what you dislike about team sports is people lose sight of the main thing being the main thing,” Spoelstra said. “Dwyane’s proven himself as a warrior, he’s helping us win and at the end of the day we’re up 3-1 with a chance to close out. We knew going into this series that it wasn’t going to be about averages and that was one thing we had to have a discussion about before the series.”

Wade is considered day-to-day, though a guess at his status for Game 4 might be possible, based on the previous round. The Heat were comfortably in control through three games against Milwaukee, so Wade sat out the finale of that sweep. As undermanned and overtaxed as the Bulls are, skipping Wednesday’s game could be the smart option, allowing maximum treatment time before Miami faces the eventual winner of the New York-Indiana series in the East finals.

It’s not as if Wade hasn’t missed time with injuries previously or that the Heat struggle in his absence (they were 12-2 this season when he did not play). Even if his knee doesn’t heal completely in the coming weeks, he’ll do what he can to play through it.

The Bulls, however, don’t have enough firepower or depth to make a diminished Wade a serious problem. That might change in the next round or in The Finals. Also, nagging injuries can sometimes lead to the same outcome as debilitating ones, as James talked about after Game 4 Monday. Remember his aching right elbow and how much attention that got in his final playoff run with Cleveland?

“It lingered throughout the whole playoffs,” James said. “You just try to go out there and give it all you got. It sucks because you know you can do things that the injury isn’t allowing you to do it.

“I know what he’s going through.”

## Miami’s Most Important Player? It’s Bosh

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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — LeBron James spent the better part of the past four days making headlines for “flopping”, according to Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. Dwyane Wayne‘s curious wardrobe choices are more interesting than anything he’s contributing on the court right now, what with that nagging bone bruise in his right knee slowing him down.

And then there’s Chris Bosh, the man who Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra insists has been his team’s most important player for quite some time. Yeah, Spoelstra’s right. Bosh might not look like the stand-alone star he was in Toronto, but he has become the Heat’s X-factor. His nightly performance often pushes them over the top and allows the Heat to “play our game,” as the coach explained earlier in this postseason when he was trying to describe Bosh’s role in Miami.

LeBron is a machine who gives the Heat everything you’d expect a four-time MVP to give in the playoffs. And no one is suggesting that Bosh is challenging LeBron as the Heat’s most valuable player. But Bosh’s steady presence at his position is what  unlocks the box for the Heat, who need to be able to spread the floor and attack to play at their best. He’s made Bulls forward Carlos Boozer the invisible man in a battle that is as one-sided as the Heat’s 3-1 series lead.

Bosh struggled in the series opener, finishing with just nine points and six rebounds as the Bulls shocked them at AmericanAirlines Arena. Since then, he’s schooled the Bulls routinely. He dropped 13 points, five rebounds and three assists in that Game 2 blowout win, 20 points, 19 boards, four assists and two blocks in that grimy Game 3 win at the United Center and another 14 points, six rebounds and four blocks in Monday night’s Game 4 rout.

Even more impressive than the numbers, though, is Bosh’s presence and the way he has stressed the Bulls. Wade has been a shell of himself in this series, which would provide an opening for teams good enough to still be participating in the playoffs. But not when Bosh is the threat he has been in this series.

Wade has been a warrior and should be lauded for the adjustments (in his ego and in his game) he’s made to accommodate both James and Bosh since they joined forces in Miami. But at this stage of their careers, you could make an argument that Bosh is more important to the Heat’s bottom line than is the beloved Wade. The Heat don’t get past the Bulls without Bosh playing at a high level in support of LeBron.

And it’s clear a single superstar will not be leading his team to a championship anytime soon. Just ask LeBron, who learned that the hard way in Cleveland, or better yet, Kevin Durant.

All that brings me back to that little stir Bosh created earlier this season when he told Fox Sports Florida that already a lock for the Hall of Fame.

“Hell, yeah, of course. I’ve been a Hall of Famer like four years ago,” he said. “And I say that very serious, though. I’ve talked about it before with my friends.”

I’ve talked it over with a few of my friends as well, and, to a man, they disagree with Bosh. They still have a hard time seeing him as a true Hall of Famer. But I’ve come around to Bosh’s side over the last two seasons. I remember the Heat wobbling last year while he was injured in the playoffs and the boost both he and Wade provided when they got healthy and helped the Heat put away the Oklahoma City Thunder in The Finals.

The Hall of Fame isn’t a far-fetched notion for a player with Bosh’s credentials: career averages of 20 points and nine rebounds, eight All-Star nominations (and counting) and who knows how many championship rings he ends up with during this run with the Heat.

## Playing Hard Simply Not Enough For Robinson, Bulls Against Heat

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CHICAGO – Nate Robinson unwrapped yards of elastic bandages from around his left shoulder, the bandages finally revealing and releasing a large ice bag on his left shoulder. Robinson had taken a hit from Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole or one of the other Miami Heat players who landed on top of him as if — like Robinson’s Chicago Bulls teammates — he might ride the tough little point guard through what was left of this series.

Robinson winced then and he winced now, nearly an hour after Chicago’s 88-65 loss in Game 4 Monday night at United Center. There were all sorts of miserable franchise playoff records set by the Bulls’ discombobulated offense — fewest points in a game, fewest in a quarter (nine in the third), lowest shooting percentage (25.7 percent) … sputter, gasp, fizzle. Robinson himself was a hot mess: an 0-for-12 night, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range. He had four turnovers to go with four assists, never got to the foul line and played 32:04 without scoring.

The instant-offense backup Chicago had turned to so many times this season and particularly this postseason was, this time, the battery in need of a jump start. No one else had the spark, either, so as their Energizer bunny ran down, so did everything the Bulls hoped to accomplish offensively.

You hold a team to 88 points — 34 in the second half — you ought to be able to win a playoff game. The Bulls never got close. They trail 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, with Game 5 Wednesday night in Miami.

Robinson, the crush of cameras and reporters finally gone, his sore shoulder finally freed, wadded up the elastic bandages and from the chair in front of his dressing stall, fired them hard to the floor. Well, at least he hit that. He dropped his head into one hand and kept it down for a while.

“Couldn’t make shots,” Robinson said. “You go out there and try to execute, you try to shoot shots that you make every day — every day — and it doesn’t fall, it takes a toll on you. Then you don’t want to feel like you’re hurting the team by shooting the ball, and that goes not just for me, I could see it on other guys’ faces.”

The Bulls trailed 11-2 in the first five minutes. They fell behind by 10 early in the second quarter and then, in the third, the bottom dropped out. They took 13 shots and missed 11. Robinson went 0-for-6. The nine points they did score stirred ugly echoes of their 10-point quarter against Miami in a 2011 East finals game that didn’t go well either.

By the end, their half of the stats sheet was whack-a-doodle: Twelve assists, 17 turnovers, 19 field goals. Miami had nine steals, blocked nine shots and contested or cut down angles on just about everything else. And the focal point of it all was Robinson, who got the sort of treatment normally reserved for Derrick Rose. (more…)

## Ego In Check, Wade Does Less For More

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CHICAGO – This ongoing attempt by the Chicago Bulls to unseat the NBA defending champion Miami Heat, an outsized task for an undermanned team, might be going better if Dwyane Wade were 27 years old.

Wait, what…?

True, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that a younger, healthier, more vibrant and assertive Wade – who launched an average of 22 shots a game in 2008-09 while leading the league in scoring (30.2 ppg) – might actually make the Heat less dangerous rather than more. But that Wade, even with one NBA title tucked away, still had things to prove.

He wasn’t as inclined to wrestle with his ego in those days and, when he did, he lost more than he won. LeBron James? Four and five years ago, Wade saw him as a friend, sure, but also as the competition. James would have remained so even if they had teamed up back then.

And now? Wade can laugh about taking just one shot in the first half of a playoff game played in his hometown, can joke about the “efficiency” of his 5-for-7 performance for a mere 10 points. As Game 4 against Chicago Monday drew near, Wade was fine with his numbers because the Heat’s numbers – six victories down, 10 to go in their quest to reach and win The Finals – were right where they needed to be.

Funny how much wiser 31 can be than 27.

“You only play this game for so long and, when you leave this game, what memories are you gonna have?” Wade told a cluster of reporters after Miami’s workout Sunday at a University of Illinois-Chicago gym. “The memories I want to have are memories of success as a team. That’s why you make decisions like this. It’s not easy. It’s hard.

“Would I have ever thought I’d be in a playoff game, that I’d take seven shots and hit five? Hell no. But at the end of the game, was I [ticked off] about it? Nope. We won the game, moved on, had a great dinner. Now I’m looking forward to Game 4 and hopefully having a different output.”

Hoping for a different outcome was what triggered all this. Back in 2010, four years after Miami’s Wade-and-Shaquille O’Neal push to its first NBA title, the shooting guard dubbed “Flash” by his big buddy was – whoosh! – there and gone from the postseason that spring. He averaged 33.2 points in the first round against Boston and still got bounced in five games. Wade vowed it never would happen again. Two months later, James and Chris Bosh signed on for their big-time buddy ball.

“If I was a selfish player, this team never would have been assembled,” Wade said Sunday, while sitting an arm’s length away from James, dealing with his own media scrum. “If I was a selfish guy, it would have never worked.

“Once we made a decision to play together, that first year, we both were trying to be alphas at the same time and it worked at times and it was hard a lot of times. You just had to look and say, ‘OK, what is going to be best for this team?’ I felt I was a person who’d had to play different roles before, so I understand more a little bit than LeBron how to take a back seat and be a Plan B or be a 1A.”

James’ career arc, after that blip of adjustment in 2010-11, soars again. He is at the peak of his powers and has added two more MVP awards to the pair he won in Cleveland. Wade probably never will win one. But his chances of winning another ring? Those look better than ever.

All he has to do is cope with his aching right knee – there’s no mending that till summer now – and occasional snarky stuff in the media about how disengaged and low-impact he has looked lately.

“I don’t worry about that,” Wade said. “Now if I shoot 5-for-17, it’s a different conversation. But I took seven shots. You’ve got to look at my touches, more so than anything. WhenI had opportunities. … It varies from game to game. I’m a big boy. I know I can shoot a shot any time I want to. That’s not a problem.”

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra and Wade both said the challenge against Chicago’s stingy defense is to get those five guys moving side to side and, ultimately, a little less tied together. So far, Wade has been effective at that, typically probing and drawing a second defender, then passing out to Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers or James for more open opportunities.

The Heat might run a few more post-ups for Wade, given his advantages down low against Bulls counterpart Marco Belinelli. He’s almost certain to get to the foul line more if they do, though boosting his scoring average (13.0) in the series is nobody’s priority. Not the Bulls’, not the Heat’s, not his.

“As long as we’re in position to win and we’re playing good basketball, I will never complain,” Wade said. “Even though we all to an extent have egos, we all have a little selfishness in us as humans, I’m able to take myself out of it at times and try to do what’s best for the team. Even in the moment if it don’t look good.”

As for Game 4 and what’s left of the series and Miami’s postseason, Wade said: “I wouldn’t bet that I’ll shoot seven shots again. I can’t say I won’t, but I wouldn’t bet it would be seven.”

## Mouthguard In, Sympathy Out As Heat Expect More Of Same From Bulls

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CHICAGO – Dwyane Wade acknowledged Sunday that, yes, after eschewing the use of a mouthguard through his NBA career, he now has begun chewing one. Wade said he has been wearing the protection for his teeth and mouth since Game 1 of the Miami Heat’s Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Chicago Bulls.

Any skepticism as to how physical the combatants expected this series to be can pretty much end there. Actually, Wade said a series of blows prompted his decision to sacrifice chewing gum for some oral protection.

“Because I’ve been getting hit in the mouth too much and I’ve been getting a lot of cuts in my mouth and I can’t eat during the week,” he said after the Heat’s practice at a University of Illinois-Chicago gym. “So I decided it’s now.

“I’m a gum chewer. But getting hit in the mouth and having to deal with these cuts in my mouth for like two weeks, torture. I can’t do it no more. I finally gave in.”

Getting used to occasional bouts of dry mouth beats oral surgery and dining through a straw, possible results in a playoff series as fiercely contested as this one. Even as the tough stuff seems to be backfiring on the Bulls — they have paid the price in foul calls, technical fouls, ejections and most recently in the \$35,000 fine levied on coach Tom Thibodeau for remarks about the officiating — that team is determined to keep contact high.

It sees now other way to dig out of the 2-1 hole and survive the best-of-seven series.

“Yes, I expect the physical nature to continue tomorrow,” Bulls center Joakim Noah told reporters at his team’s practice facility. “Y’know, it’s our only chance.

“It’s just that, when you have somebody like LeBron James coming at you full speed, yeah, there’s a lot of contact. It’s just a part of the game. You look at playoff basketball, it’s always physical. You look at every series, it’s physical.”

Undermanned in the absence of forward Luol Deng (illness) and guards Kirk Hinrich (calf bruise) and Derrick Rose (knee rehab), the Bulls know their skill level can’t match or top Miami’s. That has them relying more than ever on a grinding defense and enough body-on-body work to, in theory, make the Heat players — from stars James, Wade and Chris Bosh to the fleet of 3-point shooters — uncomfortable.

“We’re a hard-nosed, tough-guy team,” Chicago forward Jimmy Butler said. “That’s what we label ourselves as. That’s what we pride ourselves on. We’re going to come out swinging.”

To which the Heat basically responded: Whatever.

“None of this is new to us,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. “Nobody can hide from the fact that the games will be decided between those four lines. And our guys understand that.”

James, who was accused of a “flop” by Thibodeau on the ballyhooed play in which Bulls backup center Nazr Mohammed shoved him to the floor (and earned a swift ouster from Game 3 Friday), all but yawned over that comment.

“It’s kind of the same [as when] I heard people say I was overrated,” James said. “When you’re comfortable with who you are as a player and as a person, nothing really bothers you.”

James added: “I don’t need to flop. I play an aggressive game. I don’t flop. I’ve never been one of those guys.” (more…)